I am back in Dresden this week, and spent yesterday participating in, photographing, and recording various commemorations of the 1945 firebombing of the city. I actually have a lot to say about that, and will post more in the coming days, but for the moment, I want to stick to a single question that has come up a few times in doing sound studies recording, and was nagging at me again yesterday:
Should I remove the sound of my footsteps from my audio files?
This is an ethical question as much as an aesthetic or practical one. It is possible to isolate the frequency of, say, my boots crunching on a gravel path, and then mix that frequency down or even remove it entirely. I could treat it as an audio engineer would, cleaning up the recording to remove noise (where “noise” can be taken to mean “any unwanted sound”). It might make it easier to focus on other sounds in the recording, and perhaps those are the sounds I want to foreground in my work.
On the other hand, I would also run the risk of removing the sounds of all the boots on the gravel path. Not only mine, but those of the people around me, the people who are part of the soundscape I am studying.
Of course, I am part of that soundscape as well, by my very presence, and this is where I reach my ethical conundrum. Is it ethical to (with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda) remove myself from the narrative? If I eliminate my own presence from these recordings, I risk denying my position as a scholar within the space. It might give the impression of these recordings as something that magically happened, recorded by the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, who neither affected nor was affected by her surroundings. And yet I was affected. And probably affected others. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t there.
This goes beyond footsteps, of course. At yesterday morning’s memorial at the Heidefriedhof, some of those footsteps are the sound of me adding a rose to the Aschengrab (grave of ashes). Toward the end, not only do I sing “Dona Nobis Pacem” with the crowd, but I sing the upper harmony. During the human chain around the city center, I chat with the older man next to me about this year’s crowd, and how there weren’t as many people on the Augustusbrücke because of the chilling wind.
I don’t want to be so reflexive in my work that it turns into navel-gazing. This story isn’t about me, at least not at the moment.
But I can’t pretend I wasn’t there.
Ethnographers (especially those of you working in sound): how do you balance this?